Young entrepreneur Amerah Funk, 18, took the "Keys to Success" class. Pictured in Norton, Va., she has her own photography business. Courtesy Amerah Funk Photography.
Young entrepreneur Amerah Funk, 18, took the "Keys to Success" class. Pictured in Norton, she has her own photography business. Courtesy Amerah Funk Photography.

Want more education news? There’s no full-time education reporter west of Richmond. You can help fix that. Help us fund this position. From now until the end of the year, NewsMatch will double your gift of up to $1,000.

As befitting a graduate of the “Keys to Success” class, Amerah Funk showed up on time for her Zoom interview.

Funk, an 18-year-old senior at Eastside High School in Wise County, had a few minutes in between classes.

Funk learned about “Keys to Success” from a presentation at the school, and decided it might benefit her photography business. 

The young entrepreneur took the online, self-paced class during class breaks, or at home in the evenings and weekends.

“As a business owner, I’m always setting new goals and different goals for myself and my business,” she said. “My biggest takeaway was, how to set those goals and how to act on those goals. I feel like this class gave me a better outlook and a better way of thinking about these goals.”

Funk is pondering her next step after high school. 

“I’ve been blessed with a lot of opportunities and a lot of doors opened for me in the last few months,” she said. “I’ve looked into business and I’m also really interested in the education field.” If she does stick with photography, she’s leaning toward studying business at UVA Wise.

Funk is one of 122 high school students who have participated in the online class since April. 

In 2021, the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority (VCEDA) Coalfield Workforce Development and Training Fund awarded $50,000 to the Napoleon Hill Foundation in Wise to be used for workforce development and training.

The funding helped develop the online course in entrepreneurial skills for high school students in the VCEDA region, covering Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Tazewell and Wise counties and the city of Norton. 

The online program “appears to be well-aligned with VCEDA’s seed capital program which encourages entrepreneurs in the region to pursue their goals of starting and maintaining small businesses and creating jobs,” according to a quote from Jonathan Belcher, VCEDA executive director/general counsel, in a VCEDA news release.

While the online class for high schoolers is new, “Keys to Success” has been taught for many years at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise.

Napoleon Hill. Courtesy Napoleon Hill Foundation.

It is based on the book of the same name by self-help guru Napoleon Hill, who was born in Wise County in 1883 and who died in 1970.  His best-known book is “Think and Grow Rich,” published in 1937.

The Napoleon Hill Foundation, located on the campus of UVA Wise, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation dedicated to promoting Hill’s methods and philosophy. Its CEO is Don Green. 

The son of a coal miner, Green was born in Dickenson County. He grew up in a house without running water. In high school he discovered “Think And Grow Rich.”

Don Green and Gov. Glenn Youngkin at a meet-and-greet in Gate City, Va. in Nov. 2021. Courtesy Don Green.

“When I was a young person I read every book I could find,” said Green, 81. “I read motivational books, self-help, biographies. And his [Hill’s] name was mentioned several times. And then when I found out he was from this area, born in Pound, it just enthused me even more. So I started reading all of his books. [When] Hill mentioned another author, I would track that book down, read it and see where he gained his knowledge from.”

Green attended what was then called Clinch Valley College (later University of Virginia’s College at Wise). After a successful career in banking, he became CEO of the Napoleon Hill Foundation in 2000.

In the 1990s Green began teaching the “Keys To Success” class at the college. The 17 principles include developing definiteness of purpose, creating a positive attitude, building self-discipline and cultivating creative vision.

One of Green’s first students was Jack Kennedy, described by Cardinal News as “Virginia’s most famous court clerk.” The clerk of circuit court for Wise County is a man of wide-ranging interests including aerospace, astronomy and technology. 

Jack Kennedy

Kennedy describes himself as “somewhat evangelical” in his enthusiasm for Hill’s works. “I give copies of the books to people that I interact with, literally around the globe, from France to Israel, Saudi Arabia, to young interns that are working in the circuit court clerk’s office,” he said.

“Workforce development is very important to far southwest Virginia, and the central Appalachian region more specifically,” he said. “Historically, the coalfield counties, i.e., Wise, Dickenson, Russell, Tazewell, Scott, Lee, city of Norton, Buchanan County, have all been dependent upon major employers, whether that’s been Pittston, Westmoreland, Virginia Iron Coal & Coke, whatever-you-name-it coal company, where we had labor intensity and mineral extraction. Those days are gone.

“And as a result of that, we have lost a tremendous amount of our 25-to-55 workforce as they have gone about looking for other jobs outside of the region, to support their families and to continue their lives and to have a quality of life.

“So as a result of that we are in a demographic that is skewed to youth and elderly. So our hope for the future is geared to the youth.

“College-educated youth for the past decade or so have been exported. We’re exporting our best and brightest to other areas. And I don’t begrudge that. I would never hold someone back from their desires, their hopes, their aspirations. But if we provide the skills, the know-how, the desire, the motivation, to want to interact, want to learn business, and do their own startups, want to be creative and entrepreneurial, and stay with family and friends in a region that they know and are comfortable in, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, it should be encouraged.”

Kennedy is not the only high-profile graduate of  “Keys to Success.” 

Chuck Slemp. Courtesy photo.

Chuck Slemp is Virginia’s chief deputy attorney general. 

“When I enrolled in the course as a business student at UVA Wise, I had no clue that the Napoleon Hill Foundation’s ‘Keys to Success’ curriculum would have a profound impact on me personally,” Slemp said in a statement emailed to Cardinal News.  

Slemp became a Napoleon Hill Scholar. The Napoleon Hill Foundation has funded scholarships at the college since 1997.

“After graduation, I put these principles to work in my own life and career,” Slemp continued. “I am who and where I am today because of the Foundation. 

“I believe in the course so much that I continued teaching the principles formally and informally for the past two decades.  Many years after I graduated, UVA Wise asked me to come back to campus to teach the course to the next generation of future leaders.  ‘Keys to Success’ is a different kind of college course.  It’s a practical curriculum with real-world application, covering important topics such as learning from adversity, budgeting time and money, and going the extra mile.  I cannot underscore how vital it is to discuss these commonsense principles with students to help them gain the skills and knowledge they need to make a difference in the world. “

Another early graduate of  “Keys to Success” is Julia McAfee, 66, a lawyer who practices in Norton. When she took the class in the 1990s, she was a CPA, but dreamed of a legal career. 

“It just seemed like that was going to be out of reach for me,” she said. “But I took the class, and I’ll never forget,  Mr. Green wrote on one of my papers, “If you can dream this, you can do it.’

“And I thought, you know, he’s right. And time’s going to pass, so I may as well do it.”

In 1997, McAfee was accepted into the charter class of the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy. 

McAfee said Don Green “believes in the people in this region. And I think he truly believes that any person can achieve their goals if they set their mind to that, and that’s what I admire about Don, is that he never loses faith in anything or anyone.”

UVA Wise honored the Napoleon Hill Foundation as its 2022 Benefactor of the Year for “decades of establishing generous scholarships and funds that help students achieve their own success.” The foundation has created six endowed scholarships, three Bicentennial scholarships and a professorship in business, valued at more than $4 million, according to a press release from the college. Hundreds of UVA Wise students have been financially supported through Hill scholarships.

A number of Bicentennial scholarships were established in connection with UVA’s 200th anniversary in 2017.

The foundation’s income mostly comes from book publishing, Green said, although it also receives donations. Hill left all his copyrights to the foundation. In addition, Green said he has published approximately 150 books around the world in the last 20 years. Amazon lists eight books with Green as author or co-author, including “Napoleon Hill My Mentor.” 

The foundation’s biggest-selling title is Hill’s “Think And Grow Rich,” Green said. 

Green earned $257,336 as executive director in 2019, according to the foundation’s publicly available 990-PF form for that year. Total revenue was $1,215,272. The foundation paid out $753,475 in charitable disbursements, accounting for 74.6% of its total expenses. 

Hill was hugely influential on the self-help industry of the 20th century. Yet, he is a controversial figure.

“Before becoming the Ur-author of the self-help movement, Hill’s path in life was marked by a chain of shady and embarrassing failures,” Michael Schein wrote in an article that was published on inc.com.

“Napoleon Hill’s far from perfect,” Kennedy said. “If you read his personal background,  it’s colorful. Nonetheless, his literary works are artistic, and on par with other authors of this particular genre. In fact, his writings are the roots of the motivational business genre that is taught in graduate schools around the world.”

A student need not be a future entrepreneur to take the “Keys to Success” class.

Ethan Cloud. Courtesy photo.

Ethan Cloud, 16, a junior at Eastside High, wants to be a surgeon. He took the class during the 2022 fall semester.

“I learned about all of the principles of success,” he said. “There’s definiteness of purpose, which is knowing what you want to do with your life, and knowing the plan that you want to put in place to succeed. There’s a Mastermind Alliance, which is where you find people with the same goals and the same mentality as yourself, and you surround yourself with them to encourage each other to reach these goals.”

Cloud’s goal is to attend UVA Wise on a scholarship, then medical school.

“I think a problem in a lot of [high] schools is that the kids don’t know what they want to do,” he said. “And I think the ‘Keys to Success’ class would help kids to realize that there is a life after high school. And that high school is not the end, that they need to start planning for the future as soon as possible, so that they understand the plan and the goals that need to be put in place to prepare.”

The next online “Keys to Success” class begins January 17, 2023. The instructor is Adam Moore, Upward Bound program coordinator at UVA Wise. Costs are paid by the Napoleon Hill Foundation. The link for high school students to register: https://www.napoleon-hill-leaders.com/registration

Randy Walker

Randy Walker is a musician and freelance writer in Roanoke. He received a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was formerly a staff writer on (as it...